Smart Speaker Wars

Amazon Seizes the Speaker’s Podium from Google

At an event today in San Francisco, Google is expected to announce a series of new hardware products. Leaks and logic point to the unveiling of two new Pixel smartphones, another virtual reality accessory and at least one new smart speaker.

Despite its dominant position in the search market, Google is a challenger in the hardware space. We believe its first generation of Pixel phones has had a minor effect on the smartphone market. The handsets were launched in Australia, Canada, Germany, the UK and US, and gained some serious support from operators. But there are no indications that they’ve had any meaningful impact on the sales of Apple or Samsung phones in those countries. Google may have aspirations to step up its efforts with Pixel 2, but it still has a huge task to move the needle in the smartphone market.

When it comes to the launch of an updated Google Home smart speaker, the company will face comparisons with Amazon and its ever-growing family of Echo products. Just last week, in what appears to have been very opportune timing, Amazon unveiled five new Echo devices. With Amazon jumping the gun, the pressure will be on Google to deliver something impressive.

In terms of pricing and features, Amazon’s expanded hardware portfolio is impressive. At $99, its second-generation Echo device is half the price of its predecessor and offers better sound quality and better looks. The new Echo Plus takes the smart speaker further, adding ZigBee connectivity, which allows it to link directly to certain smart home products such as ZigBee-enabled light bulbs and locks. The device costs $149 and includes one Philips smart bulb. Amazon also introduced the Echo Spot, a device that’s a cross between an alarm clock and the Echo Show. It’s another Echo product with a display. To add to the line-up, Amazon unveiled an upgraded Fire TV powered by Alexa and an accessory that integrates its digital assistant capabilities to a user’s traditional landline service. Alexa is spreading throughout the household in old and new products alike.

These announcements offer observers a list of comparison points between Amazon’s Echo and Google’s Home speaker. Although the core function of these devices is the artificial intelligence engine, that’s likely to play second fiddle to hardware features such as displays, Dolby sound and expanded home connectivity.

Amazon has an Echo for every room in the house — even the wardrobe, with the Echo Look style assistant. It’s likely that Google will follow the same announcements from Amazon and that it will respond with its own extended portfolio of smart speakers including one that acts as a smart home hub and another that features a display, a convenience which could hook into security cameras and video doorbells from its sister company Nest.

Ecosystems are sticky things and Amazon’s Alexa is making more fans with its first-mover advantage, targeted approach, and ever-increasing range of “skills”, which now stand at more than 25,000. This allows Amazon to maintain a constant relationship with its customers.

Amazon has stolen some of Google’s upcoming thunder and this isn’t just about showmanship. It’s about a control point. Assistants are used for many functions including search, which is Google’s cash cow, yet its pace of hardware innovation to date doesn’t appear to reflect any sense of urgency. This week’s products announcements will show Google’s agility to adjust to a growing threat.